As per figures released by Box Office Mojo and reported by The Guardian, Scarlett Johansson is now the highest-grossing female movie star of all time. The 31-year old New York native has now leapfrogged the former ‘box office king’, Will Smith. This is being reported in certain segments of the press, including The Guardian, as a huge shocker, which — in a way — it is, but ceases to have quite as much power when one considers the changing landscape of the movie industry since Will Smith’s heyday. The clues should be in who else is now higher up than Will Smith. Don Cheadle, Stanley Tucci, Stellan Skarsgard are three names that immediately jump out at you. What the hell are they doing there? Is there some incredible mini-budget indie they made together that somehow miraculously caught fire and made billions? Wishful thinking (and, fuck, yes, I need to see that movie. Like right now).
No, they’ve franchised their way above Will Smith, of course. Marvel and The Hunger Games, those 21st century colossi, are responsible, and emblematic of the changing face of the industry and where the money pools. Interestingly, up until very recently, number 1 on the list was Samuel L. Jackson. He was only just toppled by one Harrison Ford, thanks to Harrison Ford himself being toppled by Emo Ren.
Look, see, here’s the top ten:
Fairly predictable; fairly white; fairly male. Good on Scarlett for cracking through.
Here are her five best roles:
5. Hail, Caesar (2016)
Not a major role in terms of screen time, but an important supporting one nonetheless. Scarlett plays an unmarried synchronised swimming actress who becomes pregnant, and whose baby is arranged to enter anonymously into foster care by the hero of the Coen’s fantastic Hollywood Golden Age farce, only for then to be adopted by Johansson’s character, thus maintaining her carefully cultivated, necessary image, as well as keeping her child. Johansson plays the character just as broad as need be, but with just enough human emotion underneath, deftly slotting into the Coens’ unique universe. Hail, Ceasar was her first foray into that world. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine them repeating the invitation.
4. Ghost World (2001)
Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel was the first movie to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay based on a graphic novel or comic book, and while brilliantly written and directed, it is the central performances that really anchor it. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson’s jaded high school protagonist pair are perfectly cast and sublimely played. Birch has the more prominent role and she knocks it out of the park, but Johansson provides her with the perfect foil, the two actresses playing off each other with a natural ease while still exuding the awkwardness of adolescence. Every beat of their relationship feels genuine.
3. Under The Skin (2013)
Jonathan Glazer takes his time making movies — almost a decade had elapsed between Birth (2004), and Under The Skin. When the result is as spellbinding as Under The Skin, however, the wait is more than worth it. His camera following a sensual, otherworldly being that stalks the streets of Glasgow, luring men into a van, Glazer struck gold with his central casting. Famously, the men who Johansson ensnares were not actors — hidden cameras captured Johansson’s beguiling and silky verbal dance of seduction and the men were only informed afterwards that they were in a movie. Prior to witnessing this strange and unique spectacle it is easy to dream-cast who one could envision really nailing the role; afterwards it becomes impossible. Johansson indelibly owns it.
2. Her (2013)
Just like with Under The Skin, trivia here, again, shows most clearly why Scarlett Johansson is at the peak of her game: the original voice of the operating system in Spike Jonze’s phenomenal Her was Samantha Morton. She shared the set with Joaquin Phoenix throughout the shoot, the two acting and reacting together. It was only after filming wrapped that Jonze, feeling like something was wrong, decided to — with Morton’s blessing — re-record the entire role with Johansson’s voice. Which means that not only did the latter actress have to inhabit the role of a sentient operating system, learning what it means to experience emotion alongside the infinite capacity bestowed to it by its AI brain, she also had to step into someone else’s formidable shoes and perform believably alongside Joaquin Phoenix after filming had wrapped. And all with just her voice. If you haven’t seen the movie, get thee a copy now. I am in the camp that believes Joaquin Phoenix is the greatest actor of his generation, and he is truly incredible in this role, but Scarlett Johansson — by voice alone — holds her own opposite him. If you aren’t tipping your hats by now, you should be.
1. Lost In Translation (2003)
I’ve written before of my outsize love for this movie, and Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Charlotte remains to this day one of my favourite things in one of my favourite movies. I won’t gush over the movie as a whole again, but Johansson — then barely 20 years of age — really brings to story the intelligent, sensitive, and uncertain elements that it needs to work. Sofia Coppola famously wrote the character of Bob for Bill Murray, not wanting anyone else in the role, and it is indeed completely impossible to imagine anyone else inhabiting it, but Scarlett Johansson more than holds her own here. The two actors are perfect together. If the art of acting is, as they say, the art of reacting, then this is one of the best examples of that maxim. The young actress imbues her Charlotte with so much relatable humanity, she and Bob transcend the constraints of their narrative — they both exist, out there in the ether, as fully formed people.
N.B. You may have noticed what some of you may term an egregious omission in this list.
Johansson is, of course, excellent as Black Widow, frequently stealing scenes from her apparently-more-deserving-of-a-franchise male co-stars; but as great as she is, and as much depth as she brings to a comic book role, the writing there just isn’t quite enough to put her over the top. Sorry, Natasha, here’s to that hopefully imminent solo spin-off!